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Congress can celebrate Banned Book Week by leading on free expression

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A woman wears tape over her mouth in demonstration against free-speech gags in this Dec. 27, 2014 file photo.

In April 2020, Bangladeshi writer Mushtaq Ahmed published an opinion piece criticizing his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He frequently took to Facebook to voice his concern over the official response to the health crisis, stating at one point, “When a society laments the loss of an economy more than the loss of human life, it doesn’t need a virus, it’s already sick.” 

A week after his article appeared, Ahmed was detained by Bangladeshi security forces and accused of promoting online “propaganda” that tarnished the image of the state. The 53-year-old writer was denied bail six times during his 10-month detention. On Feb. 25, he died in prison

Mr. Ahmed was one of more than 1,000 individuals to be detained under Bangladesh’s draconian Digital Security Act. He was arrested alongside cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who still faces charges for satirical Facebook posts, and who was recently featured by Amnesty International in honor of Banned Book Week, which kicked off Sept. 26. The annual event, launched in 1982 in response to a surge in efforts to remove content from schools, bookstores and libraries, celebrates freedom of expression and access to information. 

This year, Banned Book Weeks falls amid escalating concern for writers and journalists who face persecution, detention and violence by repressive regimes. In addition to Kishore, Amnesty is featuring several cases from Asia, including Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai and Sri Lankan poet Ahnaf Jazeem, both of whom have been imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression. Their cases typify a trend of media suppression by governments that rely on repressive laws, intimidation tactics, and violence to undermine freedom of expression and curtail access to information. 

This silencing of journalists allows authorities to escape public scrutiny and avoid accountability, while jeopardizing the rights and safety of the broader public. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, repressive governments around the world have punished and harassed journalists whose research and commentary keep people informed and aid public safety. Crackdowns on journalists and writers have global ramifications — and as a global leader, the U.S. should push back against efforts to constrain civil society and media spaces. 

One avenue to do so is advancing the International Press Freedom Act, introduced in the Senate in April by Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). The bill would authorize support for journalists facing threats of violence and persecution while also advancing accountability for crimes against journalists. Under the proposed legislation, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement would be required to determine the 10 countries in which journalists are most at-risk and to dedicate at least 10 percent of the bureau’s budgets for those countries to fund prevention, investigation and prosecution of attacks. This legislation would advance global protection for free expression. 

Freedom of expression faces institutional threats across Asia. In December 2020, the International Press Institute launched a cross-border cooperation project to track attacks and arrests of journalists in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal, documenting the scope of media repression in South Asia. According to Reporters without Borders, 11 Southeast Asian countries saw a decrease in their media freedom scores. In the Philippines, the Duterte administration, which oversaw the violent “war on drugs,” has wielded intimidation campaigns against journalists such as Maria Ressa, founder of Rappler, and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr., both of whom were convicted of cyber libel after running stories critical of the government. Myanmar has seen a “bitter reversal” in press freedom since the Feb. 1 military coup, becoming “one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 30 journalists remain detained in the country, including American journalist Danny Fenster. Free press in Cambodia has languished since Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 2018 takeover of the Phnom Penh Post, a move that left the country largely bereft of any independent media institution. 

“As a journalist, we have no protection from the government,” says Bangladeshi editor and newspaper publisher Mohammad Mahtab Uddin Talukdar, who was arrested and jailed for nearly four months for a Facebook post.

This year’s Banned Book Week finds journalists across Asia facing unprecedented risks for their work. Many have been forced to flee their home countries in search of protection elsewhere. Legislation such as the International Press Freedom Act will authorize the resources necessary to provide safety for journalists at risk, while also funding the investigations and prosecutions of authorities who believe they can dismantle free expression with impunity. 

By advancing the International Press Freedom Act, Congress will demonstrate U.S. commitment to supporting independent media and demanding accountability of any government that violates the right to freedom of expression. 

Carolyn Nash is the Asia Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA. Follow her on Twitter at @caroinash.

Tags amnesty international Censorship Civil rights and liberties Freedom of expression Freedom of the press Journalism Lindsey Graham Reporters Without Borders Safety of journalists Tim Kaine

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